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Will Otto Warmbier’s death affect U.S. strategy on North Korea?

June 20, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
President Trump condemned the death of 22-year-old American student Otto Warmbier -- who was released from North Korean detention in a coma -- and seemed to abandon his goal of enlisting China to pressure the regime. How does Warmbier’s tragic end affect the U.S. approach? John Yang explores what's at stake with Kathleen Stephens, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the quiet and tragic end to the sad story of Otto Warmbier, and the implications for the United States’ dealings with his former captors in North Korea.

John Yang has that.

JOHN YANG: Speaking in the Oval Office, President Trump condemned the death of Otto Warmbier, who had been detained in North Korea for nearly a year-and-a-half.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It’s a total disgrace, what happened to Otto. It should never, ever be allowed to happen.

JOHN YANG: Mr. Trump also indirectly blamed the Obama administration for not getting him home sooner.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He should have brought home that same day. The result would have been a lot different.

JOHN YANG: The president’s spokesman said Warmbier’s death casts a shadow on Mr. Trump’s stated willingness to talk to his North Korean counterpart under the right conditions.

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: Clearly, we’re moving further away, not closer to those conditions being enacted.

JOHN YANG: Later, the president seemed to abandon his goal of enlisting China to pressure North Korea: “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi and China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried.”

North Korea’s release of the 22-year-old Warmbier has increased, not eased tensions with Pyongyang. He arrived in Ohio last week in a coma. Doctors said Warmbier suffered a severe neurological injury with extensive loss of brain tissue, likely as a result of a lack of blood to his brain.

DR. DANIEL KANTER, University of Cincinnati Health: A state of unresponsive wakefulness.

JOHN YANG: He’d been sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years hard labor for allegedly taking a propaganda poster from a Pyongyang hotel. In a statement, Warmbier’s parents said, “The awful, torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible.”

In an interview broadcast today on CBS News, newly-elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in joined in condemning the North.

PRESIDENT MOON JAE-IN, South Korea (through interpreter): I believe we must now have the perception that North Korea is an irrational regime.

JOHN YANG: Moon, who had campaigned on engaging North Korea, said all options are on the table.

MOON JAE-IN (through interpreter): When it comes to preemptive strike, which you mentioned, I believe that this is something we may be able to discuss at a later stage, when the threat has become even more urgent.

JOHN YANG: North Korea still holds three other Americans as prisoners.

Today, a pair of U.S. B-1B bombers, like these, flew over South Korea, just below the demilitarized zone, in a show of force.

So, what effect will the death of Otto Warmbier have on the wider, and seemingly intractable, question of how the United States should deal with North Korea? What options are left?

To probe those questions and more, we turn to veteran diplomat Kathleen Stephens. She was U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 2008 to 2011. She’s now at Stanford University. And that’s where she joins us tonight.

Ambassador Stephens, thank you.

What about that question? Is this tragic story of Otto Warmbier going to affect, have any impact on the way the United States approaches North Korea?

KATHLEEN STEPHENS, Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea: Well, I certainly think it’s a reminder to us that the threat and the danger that North Korea poses, not just to the United States, but to the region and the world, goes even beyond its nuclear missile programs, which we have been so rightly focused on in recent weeks and months.

I also need to add, I myself want to just express my deepest condolences to the Warmbier family and to all the friends, and I know there are many, and family of Otto.

The treatment that he received while under North Korean custody for a year-and-a-half was appalling and outrageous. And I think the North Koreans owe a full explanation to his family and to the United States of what happened.

JOHN YANG: Does the approach, is it complicated by the fact that there are three Americans still being held?

KATHLEEN STEPHENS: Well, I think it concentrates the mind certainly of the United States, and I hope in Pyongyang as well, that this is untenable.

And I would hope that, in the coming days — and I believe this will happen — that there will be a renewed pressure and effort to win the release of these three Americans who are being held. There are others of other nationalities as well.

North Korea in an area of allowing access to foreigners who have been arrested while in North Korea, which it is obligated to do under standard diplomatic procedure, it hasn’t met those obligations, as it doesn’t meet its obligations in other areas.

It needs to do that. But it really needs to move — to stop this practice of holding, arresting and holding citizens, not allowing their representatives from their countries to have access to them, and often using them as or hoping to use them as leverage to — as hostages, essentially, and as bargaining chips.

It needs to stop. It needs to be a part of our overall approach and effort. It has been, but it needs to be reemphasized going forward that this too is part of the effort to get North Korea to live up to some minimal standards of international behavior.

JOHN YANG: Live up to some minimal standards. We have had sanctions in place for a long time. We have had people describe it as an irrational regime.

What are the real pressure points on North Korea? What can make a difference to North Korea?

KATHLEEN STEPHENS: Well, it is a very challenging question.

I think one thing that remains very important is, notwithstanding maybe some welcome realism about perhaps the limits of what China can or will do, China does remain an important actor in this, as does South Korea.

So, I think, with meetings coming up tomorrow in Washington — Secretary Tillerson and Mattis will be meeting with their Chinese counterparts. Next week, the new South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, will be meeting with President Trump.

Clearly, North Korea will be very much on the agenda, but, in the context of what’s happened, these are going to be even more somber meetings. And I think the effort will be to look both at better implementation of the pressure and sanctions now in effect, and also into some new ones that might bring greater pressure to get North Korea to take a different path and a path that will lead to some discussion of how it can meet its international obligations.

JOHN YANG: President Moon, of course, ran on a campaign talking about engagement with North Korea. He wanted to go to the — to pressure North Korea to the negotiating table, while President Trump talks about pressuring North Korea to get rid of its nuclear program.

What are the chances or the likelihood that these two leaders can find a common approach to North Korea when they meet here in Washington next week?

KATHLEEN STEPHENS: Well, it’s their very first meeting. They’re both very new in office, President Moon in particular.

And I think a lot is going to depend on the kind of relationship and rapport they’re able to establish with each other. President Trump established a good rapport with the Japanese prime minister, of course, with the Chinese president, Mr. Xi, although today he seemed to be a little bit disappointed in him.

So I think, one, the personal relationship is going to be important. But, two, I think it will be important for President Moon to explain the South Korean perspective. The South Koreans actually over many decades have seen thousands and thousands of their citizens abducted and held in the North, and six are being held right now just within recent months and years.

So, this is a heartfelt issue for South Korea, as well, as well as, of course, the continuing security threat of North Korea. So, they’re under no illusions about the threat. The challenge will be, as you suggest, how to harmonize these approaches and also harmonize them with China’s approach in the region, which certainly sees the need for a change in behavior in North Korea, but they’re worried about instability.

It’s not going to be easy, but having these meetings is an important first step.

JOHN YANG: Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, thanks for joining us.

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